Nurtured to Be Geniuses, Hungary's Polgar Sisters Put Winning Moves on Chess Masters

updated 05/04/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/04/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Laszlo Polgar, 40, has always expected great things from his children. Even when he was an unmarried teacher in Budapest, Polgar prepared for fatherhood by studying the biographies of 400 great intellectuals, from Socrates to Einstein. "Miss Klara," he recalls saying to his future wife, also a teacher, "we both agree that the school system produces the gray average mass. But give me any healthy newborn and I can make a genius."

Polgar delivered on his promise not just once but three times. His daughters—Zsuzsa, 18, Zsofi, 12, and Judit, 10—are already breaking records as precocious chess masters. Zsuzsa ranks as the second-best female chess player in the world and even has defeated six-time U.S. champion Walter Browne. But she admits that her younger sisters may someday eclipse her achievements. Bobby Fischer became a chess master at 12; Judit already holds the title at 10. At the New York Chess Open Tournament in mid-April, Zsuzsa placed 35th out of 89 competitors, most of them adult male grand masters. Zsofi placed 40th and Judit placed 20th out of 141 at the second-highest level. "I've never seen anything like this," says tournament organizer José Cuchi. "It's incredible that they have done so well relative to the strength of the competitors."

None of the sisters went to school. Insisting that true learning only passes between loved ones, the Polgars taught their girls at home. "They gained their superior talents by early education," says Laszlo, who quit his job years ago to work with his daughters.

At 4, Zsuzsa could speak Russian, German and English, as well as Hungarian; at 6, she studied university-level math. All three had devoured a huge library of chess books by the time they were 5. Now writing her third chess book in German, Zsuzsa decries the constraints put on other young women. "It is disgusting," she says. "A man sitting on the couch educating himself sends a woman into the kitchen, then calls her stupid and not on his level."

Playing chess with trainers for seven hours every day and traveling the world for six months each year hasn't developed the sisters' social skills. They remain aloof to outsiders and spend most of their time at the chessboards in every corner of their apartment. Occasionally, they stop to jog or play table tennis and soccer. Their one frivolous indulgence is junk food, which is sometimes a problem for pudgy Judit. "I'm very strict about her eating," says Laszlo. "But her mother and grandmother are more permissive."

For fun, the girls challenge each other to blindfold matches, playing in their minds, without boards or notes. Once a Budapest restaurant owner invited them to perform the feat in a local match. Seeing Judit's delight when she won first prize, he tried to put her in her place: "So you play chess well and I cook well." Without missing a beat, Judit replied, "With a blindfold?"

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